Amanda Lohrey – The Labyrinth, Vertigo

Amanda Lohrey is an Australian fiction writer. Over a writing career starting with The Morality of Gentlemen in 1984 she has written seven novels and one book of short stories. In 2012 she got the Patrick White Award, which seems to be a kind of consolation prize for highly regarded Australian writers with a solid body of work, who have never got the recognition they deserve. A few local awards, a Longlisting for the International Dublin Literary Award and that’s about it. But that is not to say she doesn’t take on controversial subjects. In The Morality of Gentleman she dives right into the politics of Unionism in her account of a complicated legal case from the 1950’s. She comes from a working-class background and says that her work is always political.

The Labyrinth is her latest book, and her second book set in the fictional town of Garra Nalla. As she tells it, it is a small coastal community that has a peace and simplicity that draws exhausted city dwellers.

In her first book set in Garra Nalla, Vertigo, published in 2008, Luke and Anna leave the city and buy a run-down old house there. They are exhausted and weighed down by grief. To them it seems, at first, a place of refuge.

They could see where the ocean tides flowed into the river, and how at high tide the shallow trench would rise in depth until it merged with the lagoon. But on this day the tide was out and the lagoon so uneven that it emerged in a pattern of curved sandbanks and warm, shallow pools. It was only in its north-western corner, furthest from the ocean, that the broadwater remained both deep and still, and here it was graced by a colony of black swans.

Luke and Anna begin to make a home and find friends among their neighbours, but then an overwhelming force of nature threatens all they have tried to make.

The speed with which the fire-ball engulfs them is something they will later replay in their heads, over and over, because it is scarcely credible. One minute the squall line of cloud, the next a maelstrom of smoke and flaming embers hurtling into the backyard. Luke runs towards the nearest of these and begins to beat at it in a fury. The noise of the wind is infernal; within its incendiary metallic roar he can hear the ferment of the trees, their hiss and crackle as they combust into a firestorm. A geyser of white-hot cinders sprays above the fence line like a giant Roman candle and he sees that the side gate is alight, only a few metres from the veranda.

Vertigo is a novella of 140 pages, an exquisite book with small black and white photos of sky and trees and fire (taken by Lorraine Briggs). It is written by an author with an eye for birds and seas and the inconsistencies of humans and nature.

The Labyrinth, published this year, has a heroine who has a grim reason for settling in Garra Nalla. Erica Marsden’s son Daniel is in prison for a crime that caused the death of several people, again by fire, but by a fire he has lit as an act of hate and revenge. The prison where he is serving his sentence is in a town within driving distance of Garra Nalla.

If Luke and Anna in Vertigo were a young united couple, Erica is older and alone and vulnerable. Erica has sought out a house with some ground around it because of a dream.

…a dream of intense clarity…I was living on a great desert plain, a place of immense horizons and dazzling light where there was no depth of field, no shadow, just a blessed sunlit transparency. In this desert was a city of white walls and low rooftops and at the centre of the city was a vast labyrinth. In an instant I was within the labyrinth but as I approached the centre I woke and at up in bed with my hands over my eyes, as if to preserve the image of its form, the seductive curves of its sinuous path.

This dream stays with Erica, as a path of action that can help her deal with her son’s life sentence. She remembers her father saying, ‘the cure for many ills is to build something.’  and this becomes her motivation for buying the run-down old house in Garra Nalla.

Gradually we learn about her life: growing up in a mansion that is an insane asylum presided over by her father, the disappearance of her mother, her distance from her brother Axel. She seems to drift through life, acted on by fate, with low paid jobs and bad relationships. Even after she has Daniel, his father leaves her and she later drifts into an obsessive relationship that is violent.

In Garra Nalla, a different life takes shape. She visits Daniel every two weeks, even though he is mostly unreachable, she researches labyrinths, and gets to know her neighbours.

And, again by chance, she meets Jurko, an illegal immigrant, who is also a stone mason. Jurko and Erica have a rather  abrasive relationship, but somehow their project draws in other isolated members of the community.

When he has to leave, in flight from the authorities, the labyrinth is not finished, but Erica has found some kind of healing

There, at that open door, pitcher in hand, I turn to look again at the spiral, now barely discernible in the dusk. The fugue is ended, and I will go inside and ring my brother.

A moving and beautiful novel. It explores many aspects of life, and particularly Australian life. A celebration of the natural world, it also explores the destructive relationships between men and women, the plight of the homeless refugee and the abused child, and of the healing that can come through acceptance.

Highly recommended.

6 thoughts on “Amanda Lohrey – The Labyrinth, Vertigo

  1. I’ve always found Amanda Lohrey worth reading, and she’s never been afraid to strike out along her on paths and ignore literary fashions. I’m trying to recall if it was ‘The Reading Group’ that had to be pulped because of a threatened law suit by a Tasmanian politician? Maybe you remember Gert?

    1. You might like her prize winning book Camille’s Bread. Excerpt from blurb, ‘ After too many nights of take-away pizzas, Marita wants just one year off to look after her daughter, Camille. Then she meets Stephen, (a pain in the arse G)a public servant in the complex process of reinventing himself, training as a shiatsu masseur…

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